“It's time to practice the piano, Keith.”
“Can I play outside a little longer, mom?”
“No. Come on inside and start practicing.”
Growing up, not wanting to practice piano had little to do with my passion for music.
I have loved music for as long as I can remember. It holds a spell over me I’ve yet to escape.
To this day, I scour the world for new music like a junkie looking for a fix.
No, it wasn’t the music. It was the practicing part I hated.
I hated doing something I couldn’t do. Still do.
Back then, I hated the awkward back-and-forth game of squinting at the sheet music, while stomaching the god-awful disharmony bleeding from the keys I pressed.
I hated that my fingers wouldn't do what my brain told them.
Practicing the piano frustrated the living sin out me. It was unpleasant.
Every time I sat down to practice, I would give up on the new piece I was supposed to learn and play something I already knew.
“That’s not what you’re supposed to be practicing,” mom would say.
There is always something beyond the edge of our current ability.
Something we don’t have the skill or knowledge (or both) to do. Or, at least, do well.
Creativity exists in tension.
It is the tool we use to connect things that don’t seem to go together in ways that reveal new relationships and experiences. And it’s the tool we use to find a temporary home within the tension of opposing poles.
There are at least two edges in the fabric of our creative work.
One edge is what we describe when we say an artist is “edgy". They push beyond the cultural edges of taste, technique and/or shared values.
The other edge we face, as creatives is the edge of our knowledge and abilities.
The only way to move beyond these edges is through deliberate practice.
Which means working beyond our comfort zone.
Which means spending more time working on things we can’t yet do, than working on things we either can do or come naturally to us.
When I was in college, I remember wanting to learn stride piano. Stride piano is a jazz style where your left hand jumps between tenths and chords in 4/4 time, while your right hand plays the melody.
I worshiped at the altars of Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Stride is an insanely difficult style to learn.
But, one chord at a time, played very slowly, day after day after day led me to the day I discovered I could play a Fats Waller song.
Then, I could play it fast.
Then, I could compose my own stride songs.
Then, years passed and I moved onto practicing the crafts of poetry and essays.
I can’t play stride piano any more.
Writers like to write in a style and voice in which they’re comfortable. Poets too.
Musicians like to play songs and licks they’ve mastered. The ones that get applause.
Painters like to paint things they’ve painted before. Using a style and color palette they’re confident using. Designers do this too.
Actors gravitate toward certain characters.
Photographers lean on the same subjects and Photoshop techniques.
Teachers tend to teach from what they know.
Because spending our limited days on earth doing rote tasks that make us feel bad about ourselves isn't what comes to mind when we dream about "the creative life".
Yet that is what distinguishes those who grow as artists from those who don't.
It's what is required when we commit to working at "the edge" of our creative life.
Maybe those that tell us to "write what you know," are propagating that notion to protect themselves—to limit their competition.
Because if we work on what we don't know and can't do, we're going to grow and get pretty damn good at our craft.
And we may expose long-held beliefs as the myths they are.
Creativity exists in tension. It thrives when we’re confined.
You'll know you're really practicing when you want to quit and run away.
Are you feeling this tension as you work?
It feels like failure.
And it evokes frustration. Lots of it.
Look up for a minute. Hi! I'm right here with you...
...at the edges.
Let's go in, okay?
It's time to practice.
If you want a 1-minute baptism into stride piano, click here. Be careful, though. Your brain may explode.
First time reading? I write this blog for writers, artists and other creative types. My goal is to show you the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Unlock your creativity. And re-connect you to your craft and community. Please invite other artists to join the conversation!